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When we use mindfulness to listen, we are extremely present with the person. We’re not trying to fix them, to make suggestions, to have something witty to say in reply. The point is to listen to the main content, but also to allow all levels of communication to happen.
When someone is sharing with me, I try to put all of my attention on the conversation. The skills practiced in meditation help me let go of wandering thoughts (including preparing a response or coming up with solutions) and bring focus back to the moment. I use my senses to take in information:
- Listen for the feelings and needs being expressed.
- Remember what they are saying, particularly the key points.
- Observe their body language.
- Notice how listeners respond:
- Feel my own body and how I respond emotionally to the conversation. I keep light attention on my breathing and my whole upper body.
- Watch the body language of other people in the conversation.
- If a dog is in the room, I pay some attention to how they respond to the conversation, for their wellbeing and also dogs have a lot of empathy.
Keep in mind that others listening, including the dogs, are responding from their own perspective, their own conditioning and personality.
Your dog may respond to joyful high energy with fear, for example. You may find yourself getting defensive and that was not at all the intention of the person speaking. You might become judgmental, which I find usually only happens to me when I’m feeling insecure. Something they said (or they way they said it) may just subconsciously remind you of a totally separate situation with a negative emotional context.
Frankly, I think it’s kind of a miracle that people can communicate at all. Each word or tone of voice that we use has a LOT of past uses in our own experience, so even if we have an accepted definition, words land in each person’s mind in a slightly (or vastly) different way.
Active listening communicates that we are listening and that the person was understood. It includes the skills above of really paying attention to the person, as well as checking in to make sure we’re interpreting the information close to the way that they intended.
- Stay focused on understanding what they’re saying from their own perspective. It’s tempting to respond with how you see things, whether you agree or disagree, or how you would suggest that they fix their problem.
- Use your body language to express your interest. This will probably happen naturally when you truly are focused on the person and what they are saying.
- Smiling when appropriate.
- Eye contact – not staring, but soft eye contact. People are comfortable with different amounts of eye contact, so be mindful of too much, just as you would be with a dog.
- Posture – lean slightly forward or sideways while sitting. The more interested you are, the more your feet will also tend to point at the person. If you find that your arms are crossed, ask yourself if you’re feeling defensive. You might possibly just be cold, but note that your body may be communicating defensiveness with that closed-off position.
- Crying – if they are sharing something sad, it’s totally okay to cry. Don’t stop yourself or apologize. If they cry, don’t try to stop them by saying “it’s okay” or immediately giving them tissue. If they seem to be looking for it, help them out, but don’t interrupt an emotional sharing with tissue.
- Hugs – hugs are great, but they can interrupt the flow of an emotional sharing. Don’t rush in to hug while they’re still deep in sharing something important. Watch to see if THEY are asking for a hug, not just that you’re feeling uncomfortable and want to make them stop feeling the emotion they are expressing. If you aren’t 100% certain that they want a hug, ask first and note that their body language as well as their words are the answer.
- Mirroring their body language usually happens naturally too, when you’re really tuned in. Or you can mirror the person in order to tune in more. Don’t totally copy them move for move, or it gets creepy, but it can help to get into a similar posture to them. If they cross their legs, for example, then you do it a little bit later. You can even mirror closed off posture, like arms crossed, and then after a while open up your posture to something more relaxed so that they might open up, too.
- Be curious! Ask questions whenever they come up. Don’t derail the conversation from what the speaker was talking about, but people often feel really heard when we are curious about what they said and ask follow-up questions.
- Ask for clarification. Especially helpful if you can ask if they’re feeling X or needing Y. For example, “Sounds like you were really frustrated?”
- Reflection – paraphrase what you understood. Not every sentence, but every so often, check if you’re comprehending what they’re saying. Rephrase what they said, in a short form, in your own words.
- Summary – basically this is reflection, but you can summarize their main points to make sure you understood them.
Heart With Ears
Sometimes, when we share our deep emotions, like grief, it is helpful to simply have a witness, and not someone who is as involved as an active listener would be. The person talks everything through and we are just there to listen. We don’t talk at all, except for small noises or words to indicate we are listening.
It helps to have this be something you arrange in advance, so the person knows they are completely running the show and you are simply there to listen, not come up with solutions or intervene in the flow of the conversation at all. But sometimes even when we didn’t plan for it, I shift out of verbal active listening and just use enough body language to let the person I’m listening know I’m still following along.
In the book, “The Grief Recovery Handbook: The Action Program for Moving Beyond Death, Divorce, and Other Losses including Health, Career, and Faith ,” John James and Russell Friedman refer to this as a “Heart with Ears.”
In the Heart with Ears role, we simply listen, maybe we also cry or laugh, but we don’t give any other feedback. No questions, no reframing, nothing. This is not about making sure you understand the person, though you are listening and trying to do that, too. Being a heart with ears allows people to communicate their emotion and go deep inside it. It’s not about you, it’s about them. You witness their sharing, but you don’t participate in it with words, because those may take them away from the deep emotion.
I think the best use of the Heart with Ears idea is when you are sharing something that’s not about the other person. For example I can call my longtime friend and ask if she will just listen to me talk through my experience with a client or a new epiphany about the loss of my husband. If I don’t want or need her feedback, asking her for that in advance sets both of us up for success. She can be my Heart with Ears for a few minutes and then we swap, so I can hear about her life in a similar way.
Here’s a really helpful video about listening to someone who is grieving. I’ll dig more into grief on the next page. One important point is that we can experience grief from any transition, not just from death or other clear losses like divorce. Graduating from school, getting married, having children, changing jobs (even to a ‘better’ one), moving, having an operation, any of that can bring on grief.